Kiszla: Every U.S. sports fan that bleeds red, white and blue should scream for Brittney Griner’s safe return home
Brittney Griner will never make as much money in her basketball career as LeBron James earns in a single year. Maybe that’s fair, a simple matter of supply and demand. Sports capitalism at work in the United States.
It’s also true that the freedom of Griner, detained in Russia for more than four months on a drug possession charge, is not as valued in the USA as the welfare of James. And that’s just plain wrong, an indication of how emotionally bankrupt we can be in this country.
At 6-feet-9, Griner stands among the all-time giants in American basketball history, leading Baylor to a championship in college, winning the WNBA title with the Phoenix Mercury and claiming Olympics gold twice for the glory of her country.
But in the way too many Americans value our sports heroes, she has three strikes against her. Griner is Black, gay and female.
Griner has been caged and put on trial in Russia, facing the possibility of 10 years in prison, for being caught earlier this year with vape canisters containing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage by customs officials at an airport in Moscow.
“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said during a post-game news conference earlier this month, speaking truth that’s hard to deny in a country where compassion and justice tilt heavily in favor of the rich and famous.
“It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”
Griner has pleaded guilty to possession of cannabis she uses to combat chronic pain. Medical marijuana is not legal in Russia. So let that be a warning to anyone who has ever packed hastily for a business trip.
In a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden, Griner gave voice to her biggest fear: “As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever.”
She is detained in Russia as a pawn in the tension with the United States resulting from the raging war in Ukraine. Griner has been blasted at home because she refuses to stand for the national anthem in protest of racism.
The economic realities of the basketball business is why Griner has played in Russia since 2014, because her estimated $1 million salary with UMMC Ekaterinburg is four times the $227,000 she is paid as a perennial all-star for the Mercury back in the United States.
By comparison, James is reported to have earned more than $120 million during the last calendar year from his salary with the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as far more lucrative off-the-court business ventures. Forbes estimates his net worth to be in excess of $1 billion. It’s good to be King James.
While gender equality in the everyday workplace can be frustratingly hard to find, it’s difficult to make the case that the entertainment value supplied by Griner can come anywhere close to competing with the audience James draws for everything he does, from dunking a basketball to endorsing soda pop to starring in a grade-B movie.
So I won’t demand that Griner deserves to get more money to play basketball.
But I am certainly not the first and hopefully will not be the last to ask: Why don’t we care more about bringing Griner back to the United States?
We are not obligated to pay all our sports heroes equally.
But, as Americans with compassionate hearts, shouldn’t we all be cheering loudly for Griner’s safe return home?